Feds Award $400 Million for Storm Resiliency Projects in Hoboken, Meadowlands

Scott Gurian | June 3, 2014 | Sandy
Announcement by HUD caps off a year-long, regional design competition for funding

Officials study a plan to restore wetlands and reduce flooding in the Meadowlands.
What will it take to make New Jersey and New York less vulnerable to future storms like Sandy? The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hopes close to a billion dollars will help. That’s how much officials say they’ll spend on a series of large-scale flood protection projects in both states, as part of a competition by planners, environmentalists, designers, and engineers.

The purpose of the Rebuild by Design contest was to come up with regional solutions to make the area more resilient. It received more than 140 entries, ranging from the creation of a financing model to fund coastal protection in Asbury Park to a pie-in-the-sky plan to construct artificial barrier islands 10 miles off the Jersey Shore. The ideas were narrowed through two rounds of competition, and yesterday, half a dozen winners were announced, including two in New Jersey.

A proposal by a Dutch engineering team to build sea walls and other measures to protect Hoboken and parts of Weehawken and Jersey City was awarded $230 million. Another plan created by MIT in partnership with two European design firms will receive $150 million to restore wetlands in the Meadowlands and build a berm to reduce flooding in nearby communities.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Hudson, the feds will fund four projects totaling $540 million, including a plan to build a 19-foot high berm along Manhattan’s Lower East Side and a project to fortify the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, the hub of the region’s food distribution system.

The New Jersey winners were announced yesterday afternoon by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at a news conference in Little Ferry.

“These winning proposals are truly transformative and serve as blueprints for how we can safeguard the region and make it more environmentally and economically resilient,” he said. “I believe they will be models throughout this country of the way that we can rebuild smarter and stronger after devastating storms.”

Donovan added that implementing the plans will not only save lives, but also makes economic sense in the long run. “By investing in these proposals, we’re going to ensure that when that next storm comes, New Jersey will be safer and better prepared.”

Speaking with reporters after the event, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer called it a historic opportunity for her flood-prone city. A few months ago, Zimmer had been battling with the state and Gov. Chris Christie, charging her city was being denied recovery funding due to politics. But yesterday, she just wanted to focus on the good news of what this announcement means for Hoboken.

“I’m very excited to be a part of this,” she said. “I think that we really have a great proposal that can be a model for urban resiliency.”

The plan calls for a variety of approaches, including holding back flood waters with sea walls, delaying water from entering the city, storing flood water underground, and better drainage. It’s based on techniques developed in the Netherlands, a country that was originally covered with swampland and where two-thirds of the modern-day population is vulnerable to flooding.
“What we’re talking about is being able to live with water,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to demonstrate that it can be done.”

While $230 million won’t cover the entire cost of the project, Zimmer said Hoboken is currently exploring a variety of funding sources to come up with the rest, such as public-private partnerships and use of the city’s open-space trust fund.

Secretary Donovan said the timeline for when ground will be broken on all these projects is uncertain, but he noted that the federal government would move as quickly as possible to get the ball rolling now that it’s chosen the winners.

Asked why none of the chosen New Jersey projects focused on the Jersey Shore, he said the winners were determined to be the best proposals that were submitted, and he emphasized that this competition is merely one part of HUD’s response to Sandy. Much of the attention up until now has already focused on areas further down the coast, he said.

The funding for New Jersey’s two Rebuild by Design projects comes from the state’s third — and likely final — batch of Community Development Block Grant Sandy aid. Even after all the money is spent, state officials estimate that nearly $17 billion will remain in unmet needs for housing, economic development, and infrastructure. But Donovan said he’s not terribly worried, since the federal aid will be enough to ensure that all residents on waiting lists for housing assistance will get the help they need.

“I think when you talk about billions of dollars of needs, what you’re talking about is if we were to rebuild every piece of infrastructure in the region — even ones that weren’t hit by Sandy — to make them more resilient,” he said. “You’re talking about billions and billions of dollars of investment. That’s not necessarily what the Sandy supplemental was meant to fund. We have to find other creative ways to come up with that money.”